Wander the Rainbow World Map

Saigon to the Straits

October 29th, 2017 by David Jedeikin
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Following our pleasant intro to Vietnam in Nha Trang, we were prepared for the next travel challenge: the country’s largest city, and arguably the headline port of call for the cruise: Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a. Saigon).

Well, actually, the ship said it was docking in Phu My.

Uhm, where?

Well, as with many European cities (and, as Mathew pointed out, his hometown of Sacramento), the big Asian centers typically lie on rivers just inland from the sea. That’s true of HCMC, which sits on a confluence of waterways that encompass the Mekong Delta. Our ship pulled up at this industrial port and only offered a bus drop off and a pick-up ten hours later—a long day of to and fro.

So it was time for me to again don my independent-traveler hat, and seek out alternative transport to and fro. Naturally, the cruise lines made it seem impossible, insisting that “entrance to the cruise port is at least a 20-minute walk from the ship” (it was more like 7 minutes); and “Ho Chi Minh City is at least 80 miles from [the port city] Phu My” (more like 40 miles); and—of course—“taxis are very limited.” Even though we spied a dozen of these around, we’d already pre-booked what’s often a great option in this part of the world: a car and driver for the day.

Okay, I was a still a bit nervous about it: I’d never before merged my indy-travel and cruise travel styles in a totally new city, let alone one of Asia’s mega-metropolises (HCMC now boasts a population of over 10 million).

Port to City

Luckily, at breakfast on up Deck 11, I spotted it: the entrance plaza where we were to walk to meet our driver. It was on the other side of a sprawling container port, another first for me: I’ve never before seen these giant container cranes up close and personal before; those at the Port of Oakland back home are only visible from a distance. They’re freaking massive; even if they didn’t serve as inspiration for the AT-ATs in the Star Wars films (as has been postulated, and as my shirt in the photo suggests), they’re intimidating enough on their own.

Our driver, Hung, a middle-aged local who spoke a smattering of English, met us in his oh-nice-it’s-roomy Ford hatchback, right where the car company said he’d be. So far, so good. I’d already studied the route extensively, geographic obsessive that I am, and he followed it exactly.

Another detail those various cruise and online guides sadly missed: in stating “there’s nothing between Phu My and central Saigon,” I’d been led to believe we’d see a whole lot of… well, nothing on the hour-plus trip.

Boy, was that an inaccuracy: the four-lane quasi-highway leading from the port to the main east-west highway into the city was lined cheek-by-jowl with shops, eateries, advertising signs… picture a suburban drag back home like El Camino Real or Ventura Boulevard, only with wall-to-wall shops crammed next to each other like the world’s longest continuous strip mall. The odd gorgeously adorned Buddhist temple or bit of woodland or flooded rice paddy offered only brief respite from this mammoth strip of commerce.

Nomads Unite

Eventually, we popped onto the freeway heading toward District 1, the central part of HCMC that locals still refer to as “Saigon.” Thickets of new and under-construction high-rises filled the view. We pulled up, naturally, to Saigon’s tallest building: the Bitexco Financial Tower. But we were really here for something else I enjoy in my travels more than going up tall buildings (though we did that too): a meetup with somebody from back home on their own overseas adventure.

Jake was a co-worker at my last job; his all-remote team made it possible for him to work halfway around the world, just as as Mathew and I had done a couple years back. Although he’s San Francisco born and raised, his family’s from Vietnam and he’s been having a grand old time being a digital nomad.

“I feel like this city’s my second home,” he said, as we looked out at the mammoth sprawl from Bitexco’s observation deck. The building features a helipad—though they’ve had a few issues getting it functional. Still, it looks like something out of an Avengers movie.

Jake’s fluency in Vietnamese facilitated our driver’s piloting to the next stop, something for which Mathew and I have become almost infamous for in our our global treks.

Yes, another cat café

The Saigon variant of this emerging global phenomenon resembles its European or Japanese counterparts: food service in a common space, and resident cats rather than adoptables (as in feline cafés back home). This translated to a broader age mix of creatures (the adoption-based places usually have younger felines)… and an even more more blasé attitude than usual (if that’s indeed possible) from the furry denizens.

Next, a bit of shopping and lunch. Arguably one of the better parts of overseas travel is checking out what clothing shops offer Over There. Sure, many complain about globalization and the presumed sameness of shopping the world over. But look closer: an H&M or Zara in Saigon isn’t the same as one in Chicago or Marseilles. 

As for lunch, Jake corroborated something I observed in prior travels: shopping-mall food courts can—at least in some places—be good. My bowl of Pho was super-flavorful, a nice break from the meals we’d been having on the ship.

Driving through the city on our way back, I beheld it again: as in Kaohsiung and Nha Trang, scootering is the way to get around. I’d heard that Vietnam has roughly one scooter for every adult of driving age, and I believed it. There are even designated lanes for two-wheelers on major boulevards and highways, though that didn’t stop one such roadway from getting jammed up from an obstruction ahead.

We returned to the ship in plenty of time,  leaning out our balconies for a farewell to Vietnam as we sailed out to sea. The lights of Vũng Tàu, the most seaward city on this side of the Mekong Delta, twinkled in the distance. One more day of rest and preparation, and we’d be arriving at our final destination on this Asian journey.

Port of Arrival

“We’re still moving.”

So said Mathew’s Mom as she rapped on our stateroom door the morning our ship was set to dock at its final port. This was actually a bit unusual: cruise ships typically unload passengers the morning of their arrival, and frequently arrive hours beforehand, in the wee hours. But here we were, daylight streaming through our windows, still steaming into the harbor. That’s a plus, I mused as I beheld the gleaming skyline unfolding before us. As with our departure port, I’d been to this place before: equatorial island city-state and Hong Kong doppelgänger: Singapore.

As one of the Asian “economic tigers,” I’d been impressed by Singapore’s glittering skyline and immaculately-restored historic shophouses on my last visit. Well, the city center seems to have doubled in size in the near-decade since I’d been here last. I lost count of the newly built edifices as we rode a taxi from the Marina Bay cruise terminal (itself about as nicely appointed as Hong Kong’s) to our hotel.

The Oasia Hotel itself, meanwhile, looked like something out of a utopian sci-fi tale: shaped a bit like San Francisco’s Salesforce Tower with its tapered top, but with chunks taken out of the building to allow for greenery, ventilation, and rooftop lounges and pools. The entire building is draped with ivy for environmental effect.

“It’s the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed at,” Mathew exclaimed, as we relaxed in one of the poolside cabanas beside a long infinity pool. I’ve become something of a swimming fussbudget in my old age, but this spot, perched on the building’s outdoor atrium on the 21st floor, got me to don my trunks and throw down a few laps.

(Inadvertent) Holiday Dinner

As if our outrageous fortune in coming to Hong Kong and Taiwan over national holidays wasn’t enough, we had it happen again here in Singapore: the Hindu festival of Diwali fell the same day our ship docked. Worse, Mathew and I had a hankering for Indian fare and decided to head to Little India for it. Well, it was festive and crowded and crazy… and in spite of having made an online reservation (which never got received) our chosen eatery still had us wait for a few minutes for a table. The dinner we had absolutely made it worthwhile, however: a bit spicier than we were used to, but delectable nonetheless.

Had we been in Singapore for a few days, this holiday might have given us a total charge. Sadly, coming at the end of a long cruise and an even longer holiday, we weren’t much in the mood for crowds and festivities. We attempted to visit the famed Supertree Grove, an attraction that had opened since my last time here, but gave up in the midst of all the throngs and traffic. Instead, we called it an early night in preparation for our almost 24 hours of continuous travel to cross the Pacific and head home.

One final stop on the way back to something I didn’t hit up last time I was here: major Asian airports are renowned for the fabulous amenities. Singapore’s Changi offers something truly unique, however: a butterfly garden. Sitting in Terminal 3 serenely astride the jumbo jets, it definitely makes for a relaxing airport experience.

Two long but comfortable flights later, and we were back, halfway across the world to our pets and our still-under-construction house. Life changes may have altered matters somewhat, but it won’t keep Mathew and me from continuing to wander the global rainbow.

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Slowboat From China

October 15th, 2017 by David Jedeikin
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Part Two of our journey involved traveling across Southeast Asia as I’d never done it before: by sea on a Royal Caribbean cruise.

Our ship was set to depart Hong Kong late Sunday evening—a bit different than the standard 5pm sail time for cruises from North America. We piled into two cabs and crossed Hong Kong Island from west to east, taking in that fabulous skyline one last time. The city’s new cruise terminal was located, ironically, at the site of the old Kai Tak airport—a spot I’d never landed at, having first arrived in the city almost a decade after it closed down. Tai Tak was unique in having had one long, narrow runway jutting out into the water astride the high-rises of East Kowloon. Having been one of the first airports to welcome the 747 when it was introduced in the 1970s, one experienced a surreal landing between bunches of tall buildings.

Like much of the city, the cruise terminal was cavernous and new… but that didn’t stop check-in from manifesting the typical craziness we’d experienced on previous cruises. Part of that is expected: cruise ships hold ten times as many passengers as even the largest airliners, and with all of them vacationers, there’s no experience of business-travel efficiency.

This was especially true this go-round given the late departure time. We stood in one line to check in; another to go through security; yet another to clear Hong Kong passport control; another to drop off passports for arrival visa processing; and then a final line to actually climb onto the ship itself. The days of Jack and Fabrizio hopping aboard the Titanic moments before it set sail in the eponymous film are long gone.

Notwithstanding all that, arrival on the ship made it all worthwhile. As an independent-minded traveler, I’m occasionally put off by the highly orchestrated nature of cruising… but the part that’s always done it for me is the majesty and romance of travel by ship. It’s no surprise that so much of science fiction, given the vast cosmic distances, tends to depict space travel more like old time seafaring than like the econobox experience of jet flights. I think so many of us long for the days where much of the adventure of travel was the conveyance itself.

Made in Taiwan

After a full day’s sailing the ship arrived at its first port of call, Kaohsiung in Taiwan. I must confess, aside from knowing about Mathew’s uncle having traveled there decades ago, I knew pretty much… well, nothing about this place. When I hear the word Taiwan I think “island nation run by pre-Communist Chinese government,” and “Taipei, cool big city with one of the world’s tallest buildings.”

Oh, and one other thing: “Manufacturer of a large proportion of the world’s motor scooters, including mine.” (It’s a PGO, branded in the U.S. as the Genuine Buddy; given its accent coloring we’ve taken to calling it “Buddy Blue.”)

The last of these was immediately apparent: Kaohsiung was positively buzzing with scooters of all shapes and sizes, with anywhere from one to four passengers on board. The spectacle of an entire family out for a ride, children and babies literally in tow, remains one of my favorite moments of overseas travel.

For places that I knew next to nothing about, both Kaohsiung and neighboring Tainan impressed us during our brief visit. With populations of 3 million and 2 million, respectively, both cities would be sizable metropolises back home. It always amazes me how much some parts of the world have changed so dramatically in recent years—particularly Asian Tiger economies such as Taiwan and Hong Kong. Kaohsiung boasts a subway system that’s less than ten years old and already has ridership of 200,000 a day; Taiwan also sports high-speed rail that’s faster than anything in North America; and both cities seemed spotlessly clean and peppered with a mix of newer and older high-rises. If Mathew’s uncle were around today and could come back here, I doubt he’d recognize much of it.

Our bus ferried us to a number of historical spots in Tainan’s city core. Our amiable, accented guide explained that the island’s had a diverse history, with portions of it having been run by the Dutch, the Japanese (even well before World War II), and the mainland Chinese before the 1949 Revolution.

“We still think Taiwan different from China,” he emphasized. Relations between the two nations, even with China’s greater free-market openness, remain prickly.

Shrines and Towers and Pagodas… oh my!

Our first stop was Chikhan Tower, once a colonial Dutch outpost, now a very fetching temple-like structure with well-stocked Koi pond. Given our tremendous fortune in arriving at places over holidays… well, wouldn’t you know it, this day was Taiwan’s National Day. Shops were mostly closed, and a melodious parade wound down the street across from the Tower. Oh, and the weather: this tropical part of Taiwan normally sees a big cooling off in the fall… but not this fall. We arrived to record high temperatures and humidity, even more so than in Hong Kong. Suffice it to say the air-conditioned bus made for a nice sanctuary.

Next up, Tainan Confucian Temple, featuring a tri-shaped pagoda, some rather distinctive looking squirrels (to North American eyes, anyway), and carved dragons atop a swallowtail roof. Our last stop, Koxinga Shrine, had that telltale Disney-esque look of recent construction: as with neighboring Japan, many of Taiwan’s historic structures are made of wood, necessitating near-complete rebuilding every century or so. This spot in particular commemorates a military leader who held significant territories in both Taiwan and the mainland in the 1600s.

Cruise Turbulence

Back on board, the ship’s usual panoply of amusements awaited us… well, that is, until we bumped up against a trend Mathew and his family have been noticing in their two decades of cruising: as vessels have gotten bigger and splashier, service hasn’t quite kept up on all ships. Cruise lines constantly upsell packages for beverages, for high-speed internet access, and for other amenities. In spite of their hefty fees, however, when things don’t work out, there’s typically no compensation for any inconvenience caused. The new Voom high-speed internet, touted in some reviews as reliable high-speed browsing onboard, was spotty—offering at best entry-level early-2000s DSL speeds. Pricey beverage packages likewise offer no guarantee of availability. Food, meanwhile, which in Mathew and his family’s memory pretty top-shelf even on midrange cruise lines like Royal Caribbean, nowadays doesn’t measure up to dining options you might find in mid-range restaurants back home. Even the ship’s Johnny Rockets, an outpost of the popular burger franchise, didn’t compare to its onshore counterparts—or even to the same such spot we dined at on this ship’s sister vessel over three years ago. Oh, and the air conditioning in our cabin wasn’t operating correctly when we boarded, necessitating a wait for a service call. Ugh.

Later that night, we tried to shake off our frustrations with some dancing and karaoke. Mathew sang a Britney Spears tune, natch; I did a Beatles melody. But not long after hitting the sheets, Mathew awoke… feeling like hell. After a full day of misery, we decided to visit the ship’s medical center. It had just closed, prompting an “oh shit” moment: is this gonna be another nightmare? Happily not: the ship’s on-call nurse came out immediately and assessed Mathew’s symptoms. A shot of Odasentron (a.k.a. Zofran) and some anti-nausea pills, and he was feeling a lot better in short order. Having had these identical symptoms before even without any out-of-the-ordinary foods, we suspect he may suffer from abdominal migraines, which are analogous to the cranial migraines I know all too well. Ah, the perils of getting on in years.

In spite of that diagnosis (which likely ruled out food poisoning), the ship wasn’t taking any chances: per their protocol, they confined Mathew to our cabin until the following evening. Good thing these were quieter days at sea. One plus: the ship’s staff offered up free movies and room service to keep Mathew fed and occupied. Kudos to them there.

Good Morning Vietnam!

With Mathew back in action, we went ashore at our next port: Nha Trang, our first on this cruise’s marquee destination country.

I so wanted to go to Vietnam on my big world trip, but time and timing didn’t quite work out. I still got a good sense of that portion of Asia from travels in Thailand and Cambodia… but Vietnam has especially intrigued me for two reasons: one, the obvious, is its checkered history with the United States (and colonial powers before it) as a country that fought hard for its independence and unification; two, it’s reputed to have really come into its own over the past couple decades. As part of my research for Wander the Rainbow I read the (really excellent) memoir Catfish and Mandala by Bay Area resident Andrew X. Pham… but it was set over twenty years ago, and depicted the country as something of a challenge for the overseas visitor.

As our ship sailed into Nha Trang Bay, I beheld a theme park—yup, Vietnam’s got one too, though not of the Disney variety. Vinpearl, a resort complex, sits on Hòn Tre island, just across the bay from the city proper.

Arrival in this port offered me another new travel experience: shuttling to the mainland via tender. Nha Trang doesn’t have a full-size port, so cruise ships must moor offshore and transfer passengers via smaller boats. These are often rented from the port itself, but in this instance we were taken in on the ship’s lifeboats. These have come a long, long, long way from the rickety wooden vessels of the Titanic days: they’re neutrally buoyant, 150-person motorized mini-ships with rows of seating front to back. As we stepped ashore, a chatty, fortysomething guide reminiscent of our fellow in Taiwan ushered us onto a bus, and we rolled into town.

If I thought Kaohsiung, Taiwan sported an impressive array of scooters, it had nothing on this place: it seemed the whole city was on two wheels; cars and buses were the minority. And though Nha Trang’s metro area—itself an amalgamation of several ancient villages—numbers in the half-million range, traffic here made it feel like a much bigger city: loud, chaotic, horns honking every few seconds. A native-born Montrealer, I’m occasionally frustrated by too many unhurried, oft inconsiderate vehicles and pedestrians in California, who often traverse the road unawares, fully expecting—nay, demanding—vehicles to stop for them like Moses parting the sea; traffic in Nha Trang almost made me feel more at home than my current home.

Temples and Pagodas, Redux

Our tour started out with some historic spots… something you don’t see too often in beach towns back home. We began at Long Sơn Pagoda, a Buddhist shrine with adjoining big white Buddha statue atop a small hill. Yup, yet another Big Buddha following Po Lin in Hong Kong. We had to don robes and sarongs to enter the place, something Mathew had never done before, and, I’d say, confidently rocked as a look.

Next spot reminded us that, modern resorts notwithstanding, we’re in a part of the world that’s been settled for millennia: the Po Nagar Hindu temple, dating back to the 700s AD, built by the Champa empire that ruled what is now Vietnam for over 1500 years. Po Nagar faintly reminded me of Angkor over in Cambodia, though the structures here are built almost entirely of low-slung bricks. The buildings and carvings remain, while weathered and faded, as exquisite as anything I’d seen from Rome or Angkor in my past voyages. Vendors out front peddling prickly, odiferous durian and jackfruit added to the effect.

“No mortar!” Our guide exclaimed, noting the unique building processes used to lay the bricks. As a Hindu spot, altars to the usual deities (or their Vietnam variations) were present: Shiva, Durga, and, of course, my favorite, the elephant obstacle-remover Ganesh.

Shop to Beach

A sampling of sights made us hanker for some shopping, and that’s just what this tour served up next. We headed to the local city market, housed in a couple of gritty structures that gave us more of a local flavor. The fakes here were actually of better quality than those in the Hong Kong night markets, and we enjoyed picking up a few souvenirs and doing a bit of light haggling—far less stressful here than it had been for me in India or Egypt.

Nha Trang became something of a resort town back in the Soviet Communist days, and Russian tourists still make up a significant proportion of its visitors; we spotted almost as many signs in Russian as we did in English. Our next stop took us to an open-air eatery along the town’s main beachfront road, Trần Phú Avenue. As with when I arrived in Bangkok and wondered, “is this Asia or Los Angeles?” Nah Trang’s main beachfront drag almost felt like Collins Avenue in Miami Beach, or Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica: a broad boulevard with glorious sandy treelined beach on one side, and clusters of high-rise hotels and apartments on the other. Travel guides may say “this is not a westernized resort town,” but don’t believe them: we spotted a Sheraton, an Inter-Continental, and scores of other local chains both on and off the main strip.

For me, however, the greatest surprise was gastronomic: we made our short stop at a seafront restaurant for coconut water served out of an actual coconut. Those who know me may recall my profound dislike, nay, utterly irrational hatred of the flavors of the tropical fruit. The smell of macaroons is enough to make me retch. I’d even tried some coconut water back in Mexico but couldn’t get over that aroma. Even Malibu Rum makes me cringe.

Well… color me surprised, because the ultra-fresh coconut—Mathew’s Mom swears it’s the freshest she’s ever had—actually met with my approval. I sipped it, savored the sweet essence, and, dare I say it, actually liked it. Vietnam might make a coconut convert of me yet (though I doubt I’ll ever find a stale macaroon desirable).

Past and Future

I’d read in Vietnam travel guides not to mention the war, as Basil Fawlty might have put it. Nonetheless, our amiable guide had no trouble discussing those years.

“For first ten years after the war, north and south hate each other!” He exclaimed. “But now, we are friends, and we look to build a future Vietnam together.” He emphasized how the Vietnamese pride themselves on their friendliness. Although the country is nominally Communist, the presence of all those hotels and resorts suggests, like mainland China, that they’re a lot less hung up on ideology. As a final touch, our guide sang us a song, a lyrical little ditty about Ho Chi Minh and Vietnam. He even got a bunch of us to sing the chorus. The sight of Western tourists singing “Ho Chi Minh / Viet NAM!” was definitely one to remember.

With a fond farewell, we boarded a tender back to the mothership, setting sail for more ports on this coastal nation and beyond.

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Return of the Jedi Kin

October 10th, 2017 by David Jedeikin
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HongKongSkylineFromHotelPrisma

I begin this entry at the rather fabulous 28th floor lounge of the Hotel Jen in Hong Kong. It’s become our favorite spot to watch the city light up at night.

Two years have gone by since this blog’s gone quiet and our cycle of globetrotting went on pause. Not gonna lie: it’s been a rollercoaster twenty-nine months. I’m officially a “we” now, Mathew and I having tied the knot late in 2015.  We’re also homeowners, engaged in a cycle of remodeling that never seems to end. I’ve changed jobs twice; Mathew’s employment circumstances are different as well. About the only constant in our lives has been our two furry companions, who sadly are not able to accompany us on big overseas travels (much as we wish they could).

But still, the world beckons, along with its capacity to bring perspective to the hurly-burly of life back home. And so, when Mathew’s Dad stumbled upon a novel way to get from Hong Kong to Singapore by way of stops in Vietnam—with super-competitive airfares across the Pacific—we positively jumped at the chance.

Asia New and Renewed

SFOCathay777PrismaArriving at SFO on Sunday evening, we beheld our large, long plane readying for the transoceanic journey amid a panoply of others. The past few years have seen the big overseas carriers offer up a fourth class of service: Premium Economy, a class category that I’d say is well worth the upgrade. Straddling the divide between no-frills Coach and fabulous (but pricey) Business, Premium Economy offers many of the same comforts as, say, Business used to offer decades ago: a bigger recliner seat and moderately enhanced service. I’ve gotten better at sleeping on planes and on this thirteen hour flight I managed to sleep for almost half of it. Even Mathew, who never slumbers on flights, nodded off for about three hours.

In his case, his anticipation was justified: not only was this his longest-ever flight to date, it was also his first-ever time on this side of the globe.

“I’ve never been anywhere non-Western,” he noted.

As we looked out at the lush, craggy peaks of greater Hong Kong through our airplane windows, we were most curious to see what the city would offer. I was especially curious, since I’d spent several days in the city before and found it, coming on the heels of other trans-Asian travel, to be a bit anticlimactic. As I remarked back then, dizzying skyline notwithstanding, the city’s not all that architecturally inspiring.

HarbourViewSay one thing about the place, it’s got public transit figured out. Since we arrived in the morning and were determined to ward off jet lag, we piled onto the MTR, Hong Kong’s uber-efficient subway system. Having begun operations in the late 1970s, the system boasts eight lines and ridership in the millions. I sometimes feel my plaints were a bit harsh, in Wander the Rainbow, about public transit in America’s ostensibly “transit-first” cities like our hometown, San Francisco… until I come to places like Hong Kong and wonder: why can’t we do this?

We got off the train, meandered down the walkways of Central to the waterfront and clambered onto the legendary Star Ferry. It’s a quick ride across the harbor (ahem, harbour) to Kowloon, and the trip was as splendid as I remembered it from years back: a glorious, breezy crossing, with that iconic, intense panoply of skyscrapers on either side. Hong Kong boasts the most high rises of any city on Earth, almost twice as many as the next entrant in the field, New York. And the city hasn’t rested on its laurels since I was last here in 2009: the International Commerce Centre, at 108 stories on the Kowloon side, was just a construction site back then.

TSTParkTaiChiA big, bustling city like this offers much to visitor and resident alike… but like so many world cities, the place tends to start and end late. Consequently, there wasn’t much open on the shopping streets and malls of Tsim Sha Tsui in the earlier morning; we spent a bunch of time wandering a local park as we waited for things to open up. Still, even that random urban green space evoked the feeling that so often hits me on arrival in a new place: At last, I’m elsewhere. The cliché “all your troubles melt away” rang true as we beheld a ramble of elderly locals practicing Tai Chi amid a scattering of modern sculptures.

Peak Time

One plus of staying on the move that first day: in spite of the nine hour time difference from San Francisco (fifteen if you count the other way), we did keep jet lag to a minimum and awoke the next morning ready to hit the town. Mathew’s parents, who hadn’t been here before, opted for some more organized tours, while we hopped back on the MTR and headed back to Central for the ultimate, iconic vantage point of the city from the top of Victoria Peak.

MePeakTramSkyline2My Hong Kong curse, I mused, as we came upon the long, long, long, long line for the Peak Tram. Last time I was here was over Lunar New Year, and the city was mobbed like Manhattan at Christmastime. Well, wouldn’t you know it, this week is again a holiday, both in Hong Kong and mainland China: Mid-Autumn Festival on October 4 and Mainland China’s National Day on October 1.

Fortunately, one of the city’s comfy (and remarkably inexpensive) taxicabs was on hand to whisk us to the top of the Peak by road. It’s a longer, winding route along the backside of the mountain, but that proved to be a plus as it granted us glorious views of the sleepier side of the territory, facing the South China Sea. Though even here, forests of slender high-rises could be seen climbing steep green hillsides. I found my prior grumbling about architecture less relevant, as I began to appreciate how the territory manages to house so many people with so little buildable land while still retaining its natural splendor.

Zip A Dee Doo Dah

DisneyTrainWindowI’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: my husband is a bit of a Disney-aholic. No trouble for me, as I’ve always appreciated the studio’s artistry, though in my prior travels across the globe I tended to focus on attractions unlike those back home. But with Hong Kong Disneyland having expanded significantly since its opening in 2005, and with Disney incorporating elements of Jedi-dom into the parks since their acquisition of Lucasfilm (hint: I may be a bit of a Star Wars nut myself), we decided to give the place a try. We were a bit trepidatious, to be sure, since our experience at Disneyland Paris in 2015 was kinda so-so: the place felt worn out and unmaintained, almost as if the French took the attitude of “oh, all right, you can have your damn theme park.”

DisneyMysticManorExtAny concerns we had evaporated almost immediately on our arrival, For starters, our arrival: not only is there direct MTR service to the park via a purpose-built rail line… the trains themselves are adorned with Disneyana inside and Mickey Mouse-shaped windows looking out. Given that a similar Disney park in Tokyo was the first such park to open outside of the United States, and given that there’s yet another such park that recently opened in Shanghai, it’s safe to say my thesis about Asian cultures embracing the Disney vibe is intact. For me, this is one of the better parts of globalization, as cultures integrate, adopt and make their own the ways of other lands. Consider sushi and Korean BBQ eateries back home.

While Hong Kong Disney is a smaller park, to be sure, it’s easily as spotless and well maintained as its counterparts back home. Best of all, many of its attractions have been tweaked and modified for the local landscape while retaining their original vibe. Best example: Mystic Manor, a variation on the Haunted Mansion with crazy trackless vehicles that incorporates Southeast Asian elements in its spookiness.

Back to the Past

HistoryMuseumExtMathew had some work commitments to take care of the next day, so I did some solo exploring and hit up a spot a stone’s throw from the accommodations I’d stayed at nine years ago—making me wonder how did I miss this—the Hong Kong Museum of History.

I don’t have limitless appetite for museums, but if they’re about a locale’s history and answer that ever-interesting “how did it get that way?” question, then sign me up. This entrant is practically the Central Casting example of how to do a city history museum: cavernous and comprehensive, tracing Hong Kong’s history from the geologic epochs that formed its craggy peaks (yes, they are volcanic in origin) to the two decades following the handover from Great Britain in 1997 (the former colony has taken its place as its own pseudo-city/state with its own identity). It sports a good bit of detail on wartime Japanese occupation as well, which resonated strongly with me as my father’s family was under similar circumstances a few hundred miles to the north, in Shanghai.

NightMarketSignageThe museum also answered the question that’s been nagging me ever since my grumbling about the city’s relative lack of period architecture: I knew that it had to do with the massive refugee influx from the People’s Republic during the harshest days of the Communist Revolution… but what I didn’t know is that a huge proportion of the city sits on reclaimed land. To an even greater extent than coastal California, buildable turf is super-scarce in Hong Kong. And there’s a social justice component to those high-rises as well that I likely didn’t appreciate during those pre-Occupy Wall Street days: in spite of sky-high property prices for its deluxe homes and apartments, Hong Kong also boasts a robust and extensive subsidized housing scheme that makes the place that much more affordable to a vast middle class. Coupled with high costs of private car ownership and extensive, cheap, reliable public transit, there’s a lot America—with its querulous NIMBYs and free-market-at-all-costs fundamentalists—could learn from this little territory perched on the Pearl River delta.

Above It All

NgongPingBigBuddhaSilhCUThe following afternoon, we made up for something I failed to see on my last sojourn: The Ngong Ping gondola to the Big Buddha at the monastery at Po Lin.

In 2009 I tried braving the lines and gave up after an hour of waiting with no end in sight. This time, we bought timed tickets… though that still didn’t stop us from queuing a spell to board the sweeping gondola ride. I must say, it was worth the nine-year and 25-minute wait! The cable cars soar astride the airport where we’d landed the other day. The cableway then makes a right turn, crosses a waterway, then climbs the steep, forested hillsides up to the monastery and adjoining (admittedly touristy) village. Still, this is one of those tourist spots that I think is a total must-do: the little village has its charms (and gift shops) and the monastery and Big Buddha are awe-inspiring at this spot up in the mountains. Oh, and my pop-culture hubbie had his reasons as well for visiting the place: the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills gave the place a spin a little while back.

NgongPingGondolaView3We had most of a day remaining before heading out from the city… just enough to do something that’s in its own way very Hong Kong: a viewing of the new Blade Runner sequel to the 1982 film. Although set in the near-ish future in Los Angeles, both the original film and its sequel owe much of their conceptual inspiration to the Hong Kong skyline—right down to the strong Asian influence in advertising signage and local fictional patois of its future citizenry. It’s not a perfect film, but it does a great job of rendering what a dystopian urban jungle might look like if things in our real world don’t work out so well.

Fortunately, for us, Hong Kong offered none of that: though the heat was a bit oppressive, the city’s efficient management of so many of the issues that bedevil big metropolises—transit, housing, crowds, tourism, nature preserves—made for a splendid sojourn here while we prepared for the next phase of our journey.

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Lullaby of Europe

May 17th, 2015 by David Jedeikin
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AlbufeiraBldgWhiteA European odyssey of this scale deserved a languid, multi-destination farewell, and that’s just what we planned to give it.

It began last Saturday morning, when we bade a bittersweet farewell to our home-away-from-home in Albufeira; gonna miss that view, I mused, gazing out at the ocean one last time.

A comfortable ride up north brought us to the nation’s capital, Lisbon; two short metro rides brought us to arguably one of the most fabulous (and reasonable) accommodations in all my years traveling the globe: an ultra-modern, eco-style wood-and-stone remodel of a classic Lisbon building straddling one of the city’s many hills; a fabulous (and equally reasonable) lounge, Mediterranean restaurant, and gym/spa rounded out the package. Having experienced something similar earlier in the year in Istanbul, I can safely say that affordable-yet-hip cities on Europe’s periphery are the place to go for great value and an sophisticated, urban vibe.

LisbonBaixaShoppingStreetThat was further confirmed for us on our meanderings through the city: we strode down the super-broad Avenida de la Liberdade down toward the city’s historic core, Baixa. Although obviously a far older place, Lisbon shares a thing or two with San Francisco: built around numerous hills, for one; and having experienced a mammoth earthquake – in Lisbon’s case, in 1755. This old city core is, in fact, not that old, having been rebuilt after that era. However, having been an imperial maritime power, this city – a mid-sized place comparable in population to Vienna or San Diego – holds a grandeur evident in its statuary, its broad city squares, and its glorious buildings.

LisbonHillyStreetInstaLater that evening, in search of a vegetarian meal, we wandered (literally) over hill and dale, climbing and descending the city’s steep byways and stairways. It was a beautiful evening, coloring the multi-hued tile façades with orange tint. As with other southern European cities, Lisbon’s got its share of crumbling edifices and splashes of graffiti; I found the effect enchanting, however, like a faded yet still vital old fairyland.

Next day I wandered the nearby Parque Eduardo VII, a green space cresting the hill at the end of Avenida de la Liberdade. Emerging relaxed from a stellar (and, again, reasonably-priced) massage at the hotel spa, Mathew joined me as we headed across town to see more sights in Belém, the city’s historic seaport district.

LisbonAvenideObeliskTukTukOr so we thought: the tram to Belém was packed, so we opted for a ride in one of the city’s tourist tuk-tuks. Yep, they’ve got them here as well, just as they do in India and Thailand. Our driver, however, was a young lady who spoke a near-perfect English and was thrilled to hear we were from San Francisco: she’s going to study there in the fall. As we passed under the suspension bridge across the River Tagus riding down the broad waterfront boulevard, I couldn’t help but think: lady, you’re gonna feel right at home.

Belém played a big role in Portugal’s maritime exploits, with a number of the Portuguese explorers (De Gama, Magellan) departing from these shores. A monument by the sea commemorates this event (nothing on the mass depredations it caused the indigenous peoples of the Americas, alas). Nearby is a sea fort, Belém Tower, built in the high Gothic style one normally associates with more northerly European cities. Even more impressive was the Jerónimos Monastery, with the requisite awe-inspiring pillars, vaulted ceilings, and other carvings so prominent in the Great European City Who’s Got The Biggest Church Contest I feel must have existed in back in the day.

MeBelemCoachMuseum1After that, an unusual but for me fascinating attraction: the National Coach Museum, displaying a range of grand, ceremonial conveyances from the age before autos. The museum is housed in a glorious but faded old edifice; a new building, all modern and glass and concrete, is nearing completion across the way. While no doubt the new digs will be nice, I wonder if it’ll lose something in moving to so different a venue.

After that, down to business. The business, that is, of finding an inexpensive bag to haul all that additional stuff we’d bought (or were going to buy) back home. Mathew, uncharacteristically, had traveled fairly light on the way over, planning to make some clothing (and footwear, his ongoing obsession) purchases on this trip. We’d already acquired a cheap rollaboard at one of the discount Asian shops around Albufeira (in our case, the curiously named “Chinese Shop Good”)… only to have it literally fall apart after a couple of train rides. We seemed to find one of marginally better quality at one of the tourist shops in Lisbon, but only time would tell if this bag would stand the test.

MathewChineseShopGoodMeanwhile, TAP, the Portuguese airline, was coming off a pilots strike that left us wondering if we were going to get off the ground at all. Fortunately we did, and a few hours later were waiting with our bags (the new cheap one’s wheels already showing signs of wear) at the airport train station in Dusseldorf for a couple of German Regional Express trains to the town of Bad Honnef.

Uhm, where?

As I’d mentioned, Mathew is something of a shoe aficionado; his taste of late runs to offbeat, colorful variations of Birkenstock sandals and clogs. So when he learned that the two-century-old German footwear manufacturer had an outlet shop not too far from where our flight home was to depart… well, that was all the incentive I needed to plan a little sojourn.

Our train rolled by the Rhine, passing the hilltop of Drachenfels bearing a ruined castle. This part of Western Germany held sway over the Romantic poets during their period of Rhine Romanticism, and it wasn’t hard to see why: broadleaf forests, rolling hills, and the lazy river made clear we’d left Mediterranean Europe behind for the moodier, temperate climes up north. However, unlike our Paris trek a couple weeks back, this time a warm spell was gripping the Continent, and the humid sunshine felt rather like summer in New England. We dropped our bags at the hotel in the middle of the picturesque little town center, and hopped in a cab to a nondescript building in an equally nondescript industrial park at the edge of town to arrive at Shoe Mecca.

MathewBirkenstockOutlet4The shop definitely delivered: Mathew scored half a dozen pairs, and even I purchased a semi-casual pair of more standard footwear. We hoofed it back to the hotel in the unseasonable heat – only to discover that our accommodations had no air conditioning, fan, or any means of moving air around the room at all. Fortunately, it cooled off as we headed into the town center for a great meal at an Italian eatery attended to by a warm, friendly Indonesian lady. She was a nice contrast, as we’d already begun to notice the curt, German “take it or leave it attitude” in some spots (the checkout lady at the supermarket refusing to take our non-European cards, even those bearing the all-important EMV chip, was one example).

Next morning, on the move again: another regional train back to Cologne, then a quick ride on the German high-speed ICE. With wi-fi, digital readouts at every seat indicating the passenger’s destination, and LED-lit bathrooms, it was clear this was the nicest high-speed train we’d taken in Europe so far. Arriving at Frankfurt’s cavernous Hauptbahnhof, we settled in at our design-y hotel nearby – dodging the city’s somewhat dodgy red-light district on the other side of the station – for our final day of remote work in Europe.

MathewCologneHauptbahnhofWalkI’d transited through Frankfurt once in my big world trip, and it left something of an impression on me – not entirely positive. On my way to the airport, I’d inadvertently popped into the small section of an S-Bahn train that was designated (though not terribly well marked) first class – and got a Germanic ass-chewing from some uniformed fare inspectors.

This time I knew to watch for that – but what I hadn’t counted on was our supermarket experience in Bad Honnef to metastasize as we sought to purchase tickets to get to the airport. First off, none of the fare machines accepted any of our credit or debit cards – even those that matched the “chip and PIN” spec we knew was the norm here. Then none of the ATMs took any of our bank cards – save one of Mathew’s, thank heavens. Then the fare machines refused to accept cash until we inserted exact change. Glad we came early, I mused.

The fun continued at the airport: after a smooth checkin, we stood in the near-empty security line; knowing how much gear and luggage we both had, I pulled out three of those plastic bins used for electronics and personal effects.

“AY-YAY YAY! VUN BY VUN!” barked the lady overseeing our security lane. Apparently, grabbing more than a single bin at a time ist verboten in these parts, even with nobody ahead in line. Really?

FliteHomeCanadianRockies2Fortunately, the flight home, although lengthy, was stellar: the upgrade fairy gifted us some extra-comfortable seats and some really killer on-board service. We drifted off to sleep for a spell, memories of Europe — its grandeur, as well as its foibles and faults — washing over us like a lullaby. Looking out over the Rockies as we neared the West Coast, I realized this lengthy time away was tougher for me than it had been in past explorations — what with a home, a job, two pets and a partner (Mathew had been home for the first part of these travels) now in the mix. Given that, will we be getting back in the travel saddle again anytime soon?

Only time will tell, but if past travel adaptations to new life circumstances are any indication… we’ll find a way.

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Downs and Ups in London and Paris

May 6th, 2015 by David Jedeikin
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MathewQuintaDoFrancesWineryExtPart of our plan on this long-haul, work-play adventure was to use our beach spot in Portugal as home base and take shorter journeys elsewhere. Having done our mega-train journey the weekend of our arrival, we opted to stick closer to home the next weekend and checked out the Algarve’s lesser known offerings: while the region has been growing grapes for eons, its focus on tourism has meant it’s only recently returned to winemaking. Perfect for we Californians accustomed to fending off the hordes at Napa and Sonoma; a half-hour drive from Albufeira and we were rewarded with a lovely, uncrowded winery in the hills overlooking a river valley. I can only assume that as more visitors discover this region’s vineyards, this activity will grow in popularity as it has in so many spots worldwide.

The next week saw us get back in the travel saddle once more: a van ride to Faro Airport for a morning flight to London Gatwick. Given the time and timing of the flight, it felt a bit like those weekly early-morning trips from Chicago to Boston I used to take in my past life as an out-of-town contractor. Mathew settled in at his company’s office in the West End, and I hoofed it to our nearby hotel to get a day’s work done.

RegentStreetNite2As one of the world’s most expensive cities, London always poses an issue to flashpacker types looking to travel with a bit of comfort while still on a budget. We opted to pay a little extra for a branch of one of the big chain hotels, figuring that would ensure us reliable wi-fi and a few other amenities.

Well, that was a mistake: the place had some of the worst Internet I’ve ever encountered. Coupled with a tiny, uncomfortable bed that could charitably be called a “double” led to poor sleep and stresses for us both. We ground away at our respective jobs wondering, was this side trip a mistake?

Fortunately, our second evening offered a bright spot: as big movie buffs (and with Mathew now working in a field that sees a need to keep abreast of trends) we learned that the new Avengers film was showing in the UK even before its release in North America — and on the biggest IMAX screen in the country to boot. Although our last-minute seats were less than optimal, both the film (written and directed by one of my faves, Joss Whedon) and the venue richly delivered, and made for a nice cap-off to our short stay in the city.

MathewEurostarNext morning, a familiar pattern for me leaving the UK: a Tube ride to St. Pancras and a high-speed Eurostar to the Continent. Only this time, the destination was a bit different: instead of heading into one of the train line’s destination cities, this conveyance swung east, dropping us off at Marne-la-Vallée, a suburb outside Paris and the home of Europe’s only Disneyland park.

I know, I know. I’ve taken pains to avoid this place in favor of the indigenous cultural treasures to be found in the region. But having been to the French capital some four times in seven years, and with a partner who’s an even bigger Disney nut then I, we figured it was time to give the place its due. Plus, with the weather improving in London since our rainy arrival, I was anticipating some of that magical Paris sunshine I’d come to expect when it’s almost nice in Britain. As we emerged out of the Channel tunnel, rounded Lille and began the race toward Paris, shafts of sunlight pouring through lazy clouds boded well for the weekend.

MathewDisneyParisCastle2So much for that, I mused an hour or so later, as clouds thickened and we arrived under cover of misty drizzle. Not only that, it was cold. Coldest it had ever been for me in the Paris region in my four visits here earlier in the spring and later in the fall. When Disneyland Paris (then called Euro Disney) opened in 1992, this was a central issue the company’s Imagineers had to contend with: unlike Mediterranean Anaheim and subtropical Orlando, the climate here can be frigid and damp even in the months straddling summer. We were curious, if a bit annoyed, to see how Disney In The Rain was going to play out.

Fortunately, the drizzle was mostly light as we began to familiarize ourselves with this new-yet-familiar park: the marquee section of each of these Disney creations models itself on the original Disneyland in California: a turn-of-the-twentieth-century-styled “Main Street” culminating in a mythic castle that serves as hub for multiple themed “lands.” Here the Imagineering was on point as always, and the artistry, attention to detail, and methodical landscaping captivated me as it always does.

DisneyParisSwissWineMenuAs for the charges of “cultural imperialism,” leveled at the park when it opened in the 1990s? Well, consider that many of the stories and places depicted in Disney lore emanate from European source material. Heck, as I’d noted in my round-the-world journeys, the man himself was inspired by French hill towns like Èze, in the south, and by amusement parks such as Tivoli up in the Scandinavian north. Given that, and with a healthy blend of français mingled into the Disney mix, I found this park works just fine in the European heartland. Nice plus: wine with dinner at the Blue Lagoon Restaurant overlooking the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

Less captivating were some other details of an American outpost thousands of miles from home: although Disney parks pride themselves on their efficiency, order, and enthusiasm of their staff, here we found all three a bit flagging. Park employees – ehrm, “cast members” – seemed less than cheery or efficient. Lines for rides were sometimes chaotic. More than a few attractions seemed closed. Heck, we even saw a woman letting her kid urinate off the side of a particularly lengthy outdoor line – I mean, when ya gotta go, ya gotta go, but such conduct would be unimaginable at one of the parks back home.

WaltDisneyStudiosUrsulaConceptsStill, the place enchanted, as we’d hoped, as we enjoyed a break in the rain the next morning and hopped over to the neighboring Walt Disney Studios park and enjoyed seeing Hollywood refracted through French eyes. I even learned a bit more about Disney animation concepts for some favorite movies in the place’s Animagique pavilion.

Our flight back to Portugal wasn’t set to leave until Sunday afternoon, so with a couple hours to kill we headed into central Paris to return to a different themed attraction near and dear to my Crazy Cat Lady heart: the city’s feline-oriented café. I’d been to this one with my nephew Jackson a year ago, and to its London counterpart with niece Lola last month… but all these weeks away from our furry companions back home left us jonesing for more felines with our brunch a la Parisienne. Happily, the place eminently delivered on both counts, with stellar food and a passel of cats curling around curious humans or existentially staring out into the Paris streetscape.

MeCafeDesChats2The voyage south, meanwhile, was a bit of a down to the previous up: our flight northward was on efficient easyJet, but our journey home was on another discount European carrier, Transavia. While I’ve noted Europe’s embrace of the low-fare model in the past, this experience was a reminder that, well, not all budget airlines are created equal. Some have gone the route of offering more comforts for a fee (airberlin, or the aforementioned easyJet)… while others stick with the “cattle car” model (Ryanair, of course, and, it seems, Transavia as well). Check-in took forever; the plane was packed to the gills with loud, loutish tourists; seating was cramped and offered little escape. We were happy to see our both luggage and our ride back to Albufeira arrive swiftly, and to return to our home-away-from-home after this fun yet occasionally up-and-down vacation from our vacation.

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Trans Europe Express

April 21st, 2015 by David Jedeikin
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Tulips2Spring Break presents an interesting conundrum for one trying to time travels around school holidays: what if the weeks off overlap? Such was the case with my niece Lola and Mathew’s friend Jasmin, who’s teaching school in Cairo (we also met her last April in Malta). This year, both Jasmin’s and Lola’s school vacas were on adjacent weeks — and I was determined to both conclude my Lola travels and meet up with my beau and his pal at their destination of choice this year: Amsterdam.

But… that wasn’t it: Mathew and I had also pledged to take a grand rail journey across Europe to our longer-stay destination in the Algarve, in southern Portugal. I’d scoured rail websites for months before this, and plans were set in motion.

Suffice it to say it was going to be an interesting week.

BAFlightMapIt all began last Tuesday: two Paris Metro rides, one Eurostar trip back to London, a Tube to the Heathrow Express, then a flight to Montreal on a jam-packed plane to return Lola safely to her family. All in all, her trip seemed as much a hit for her as it was for cousin Jackson a year ago; next day in school, a gaggle of classmates surrounded her and pumped her for details of her voyage. For me, the joy of actually seeing a kid’s horizons broaden before my very eyes proved priceless indeed; guess there was something to those MasterCard ads from a few years back.

Now I know how flight attendants feel, I mused, as I savored a layover of some 24 hours in my hometown, Montreal. To say my circadian clock was a mess would be an understatement as I ignored jetlag as I labored to stay on Europe time. The pleasant sunny weather in Montreal — finally warming up after a long winter — felt more surreal and bright than welcomed. As evening approached, I returned to the airport and re-boarded that same British Airways flight for a hop back across the pond.

SchipolJetwayArriving at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport aroused a well of memories: while I lived in the Middle East as a boy my family flew KLM a lot, connecting through this major Western European gateway. My earliest memory of running to catch a connecting flight was here. Those large, modern walls of glass and round jetway windows brought it all back to me.

Amsterdam, meanwhile, retains that distinct mix of prim, flat-fronted canal buildings and carefree laissez-faire fun I remember from seven years back in my big world journey. I slept like a log the following two nights, the faint racket from bars downstairs from our accommodations — an attic apartment in a canal townhome — hardly fazing me. After getting back into the swing of remote work, I joined Mathew and Jasmin for a spin through the Red Light District. It remains an odd juxtaposition, historic churches and scantily-clad prostitutes and gawking tourists on narrow streets. But heck, it’s fun.

Smartshop3In spite of a Dutch shift toward conservatism a few years back and the banning of Magic Mushrooms not long after my visit in 2008, little has changed in the “soft drug” scene in Amsterdam from my memories. Efforts to restrict cannabis sales to locals fell flat, particularly in Amsterdam. And the Mushrooms ban extended only to a number of strains of the plant – a variant, magic truffles, remains legal. While there are said to be fewer Smartshops selling psilocybin products as there used to be in years past, we had no trouble spotting quite a number.

The coffeeshops, meanwhile, remain evergreen (pun intended) in the city, offering all manner of cannabis products for sale. Actually, judging how far things in the States have come, with five states legalizing the stuff and numerous others (including California) offering it medicinally with little fuss or muss, the Netherlands’ experiment feels at once trend-setting and prosaic.

MathewJasminAmsterdamBenchAlthough the Rijksmuseum has finally reopened after years of remodeling, Mathew and Jasmin were looking for a less daunting art appreciation experience on their last day in the city. So we went next door (wisely buying our tickets at the line-free kiosk a block away) to the Van Gogh Museum, where I got to once more appreciate the once-unappreciated tormented genius of this master painter.

We made our way back to the train station, bade Jasmin farewell, and looked for the NS International Lounge whose access came with our train tickets. Alas, we picked the wrong week: it was closed for remodeling, though the Starbucks next door offered similar high-vaulted ceilings and grand Victorian architecture. We boarded our high-speed Thalys train (successor to the old Trans Europ Express) and rolled out of Amsterdam in the late afternoon light.

MeMathewThalysUssieWhy do this overland? Well, a long time ago on a continent rather far away, my budget-minded and sun-starved Canadian family went on the mother of all road trips: we packed up our station wagon and drove from our home in Montreal all the way to my grandmother’s apartment in North Miami Beach. Although the allure of surface travel persists from those halcyon days, my one complaint with road trips is the need to drive oneself.

MathewThalysParisEurope offers a tantalizing way out of that conundrum: although the Continent is a lot smaller than North America, traveling from end to end is actually comparable in distance to that long-ago journey from Montreal to Miami – in our case, on this trip, from Amsterdam to Albufeira, Portugal. Thanks to high-speed rail, a journey like this can be accomplished in half the time as conventional driving – and all without the need to get behind the wheel.

We rocketed through the Netherlands and Belgium — last time I took this train these portions of the line hadn’t yet been upgraded to true high-speed — arriving some three hours later at Paris Gare du Nord. It was my third time transiting through this station in just over a week. Since it was late, we skipped urban rail and hopped in a cab to our cute little hotel right near Gare de Lyon. It was a mild Parisian evening, and the city bustled as we called it an early one in preparation for our big next day.

BarcelonaSantsSignTGVNext morning, a five minute walk toward the great clock of Gare de Lyon, then a climb onto the double-decker TGV Duplex for a lengthy yet speedy train ride across France. We left the plains of central France behind and slid through tunnels under the mountains of northern Spain to arrive at Barcelona Sants station in the early afternoon.

A bite of lunch, then back on another train – this one a Spanish high-speed AVE – to cross most of the Iberian peninsula toward our next stopover for the night. I have yet to visit Spain, but the views out the window of the Spanish countryside have only further whetted my appetite: verdant fields and glorious mountain vistas glowing in the late-afternoon sun.

Mathew, meanwhile, found the experience a bit more jarring: at Zaragoza a rather loud group of schoolkids filled up our mostly empty carriage; at our destination point for the night, Seville, our taxi driver sat lazily in his cab while we hauled out our baggage; at check-in at our hotel, front-desk staff chatted with their cohorts for a spell before getting us situated. All that efficiency we’d become accustomed to in Europe’s more northerly big cities was less apparent here.

DAMASBusNonetheless, things moved expediently: our hotel in Seville lay just across the street from our next transport terminal. Although we’d aimed at doing trains the whole way, realities made that challenging: Europe’s Iberian neighbors both have pretty sophisticated rail networks, but interconnections are still in progress: to date there’s no high-speed link between the two capitals, Lisbon and Madrid; nor are there any links between high-speed lines in Andalusia in southern Spain, and Algarve rail in southern Portugal. So we opted to make up the distance in a more prosaic fashion: a bus making the run out of Seville. As with the previous morning in Paris, we rose at the crack of dawn and boarded the conveyance. Morning light filtered into Seville’s historic center as we crossed the river and headed west toward our final destination.

Amsterdam_to_AlbufeiraI always have this fear, when taking buses in foreign countries, of what I call “chicken bus” syndrome: it’s based on that scene in Romancing the Stone, where Kathleen Turner gets on the wrong bus from the airport in Colombia and ends up on a rattletrap with luggage on the roof and peasants within, chickens in arm. Interestingly, none of my bus experiences in South America came close to this cliché. Here in Spain, however, our DAMAS bus (their version of Greyhound) was a bit less fab: so-so on cleanliness, and milk-run-level stop and go – including one unusual pull-over as we crossed into Portugal, where uniformed inspectors examined everyone’s passports.

“Ah. Now we will be delayed,” fumed an older gentleman seated in front of us as Portuguese officials grilled a couple of passengers. The EU has mostly made these border checks obsolete, but a few nations still keep them alive. The fellow chatting with us was a tour operator who hailed from Madrid, catching a train out of Faro. Happily, we were released soon after, and made up time as we rolled through the orchards and green hillscapes of the Algarve. A couple more stops, and we were at our destination for the next three weeks.

AlbufeiraBeachWe had traveled some 1,800 miles (about 1,300 as the passenger jet flies) from near Europe’s top to its bottom in about thirty hours (including two overnights)… all without leaving the ground.

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A Canadian Girl In Paris

April 15th, 2015 by David Jedeikin
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LolaPlaceDuCanadaAs with my trip last year, Lola’s twelfth birthday present included a visit across the Channel. Lola and I began the journey between Western Europe’s two largest cities with the fastest, most comfortable way there is: by Eurostar. The speedy train rocketed us from London’s St. Pancras to Paris’s Gare du Nord smoothly and punctually. Emerging at street level from the Metro near our accommodations, Lola had the same reaction I did all those years ago on my big world trip:

“It’s so beautiful!

I firmly believe that, for maximum effect, one must not only travel by rail to Paris but also immediately submerge into the Metro and only emerge on some gorgeous Paris thoroughfare (read: most of them) and be appropriately wowed.

It was mid-afternoon when we arrived, perfect for an easing in to the city the best way a girl (and her gay uncle) know how: a bit of shopping.

We ambled over to the Champs Élysées, where Lola did her thing, finding trinkets and apparel enough to whet her appetites. I needed nothing as I came prepared for the weather: it was nice enough in London, to be sure, but it was absolutely magnificent on the Friday afternoon we arrived in Paris. We crossed the Seine as the sun was going down and geared up for fun times in this incredible city.

LouvreExtDetailNext morning dawned cloudy and cooler – a reminder it’s still early spring here in northern France. Nonetheless, we crossed the Jardins des Tuileries and stood in the moderate but not impossible line for security at the Louvre. To pass the time under the ominous skies, Lola recounted to me a couple of ghost stories she’d heard at summer camp; I myself have memories of hearing such tales as a lad, and remember them scaring me more than I let on.

The treasures inside blew the gloom away for a spell, however, as we took in the usual big stuff: the Mona Lisa (“it’s so small!” Lola remarked, a familiar refrain for first-time visitors to the art world’s supercelebrity); the Winged Victory of Samothrace (beautifully restored since my last visit); and the ever-armless Venus de Milo. Lola also took an interest in the archeological excavations of the original medieval Louvre castle that had bewitched her cousin (and me) on initial viewing.

It was chilly outside still, and a bit of a walk to our next attraction, so Lola pointed to a conveyance waiting on the street and asked, “can we take that?”

She was pointing at a bicycle rickshaw, one of many that can be found in tourist centers the world over. I normally shun such vehicles as they feel somewhat exploitative, but our driver seemed amiable and the price wasn’t too terrible, so why not? We headed across the Pont Neuf (Paris’s oldest standing bridge), then up to Île de la Cité for the Gothic monster at its center: Notre Dame cathedral.

LolaNotreDameThe line here was long as well, but it moved quickly and we were soon inside the cavernous structure. Lola found the stained glass windows remarkable (“I made one at camp!”, she remarked, though no doubt not quite as ornate), and did some more gift shop browsing. Afterward, we hopped over to the next island in the Seine, Île Saint-Louis, for its modern-day Parisian treasure: Berthillon ice cream at a café next to the fabled scoop shop.

It had begun to rain and, sadly, the weather change was playing havoc with my head. Call it the by-product of aging (and heredity), as over the past couple of years my occasional headaches have mutated into full-on migraine attacks. One was poking at the sidelines on this moody Saturday, but as we headed back through the rainy streets it got worse and worse. We went for a brief dinner nearby, but by that point my head was pounding like a jackhammer. We returned back to our hotel… to discover we’d left Lola’s bag back at the restaurant. We scurried back, amid her earnest apologies (no bother, really: it was minutes away, and heck, if I had a dime for every time I’d done that before).

LolaVersaillesHallMirrorsOn our return I switched off the lights and cradled my pounding head. After a short while I emerged… to find Lola herself quite perturbed. It was nothing more than a brief pang of homesickness (and her own fears from those ghost stories she recounted earlier); we talked through it all, and it actually turned out to be bit of a bonding moment for us both. We soon hit our respective pillows, slept soundly, and emerged rested (and migraine- and homesickness-free) the next morning.

Meanwhile, the sun and warmth had returned, so off we went to a suitably summery place: the warm-weather abode of King Louis XIV, just outside town, the Palace of Versailles.

The throngs had descended on the Grand Apartments, but that didn’t stop us from marveling at the over-the-top elegance of it all: King’s Bedchamber, Queen’s Bedchamber, Hall of Mirrors… Lola drank it all in.

VersaillesGardensFountains6But what really blew us both away were the gardens. Last time I was here was on my big world trip, on a moody October afternoon, and the gardens were lovely but muted, subdued. Now, in the April sunshine, with trees in bloom, the place came to life. Best part: musical accompaniment, featuring period-appropriate Baroque melodies, piped in throughout the gardens. Better yet: these melodies synchronized with the fountains that I’ve so longed to see switched on. Once more, Lola put it best, what with music, fountains and all, “it really sets the mood!”

BateauxMouchesSignDepartWe headed back on the RER commuter train, then continued our outdoor explorations: we boarded one of the Bateaux-Mouches for an hourlong tour of the city along the River Seine. The near-perfect weather, magical architecture, and clusters of people sitting along the city’s perfectly-sculpted riverbanks made for a most epic early-evening ride.

Next morning we rose early for a reprise of a military-style operation: a vertical assault on the hulking steel structure nearby, the Eiffel Tower.

EiffelTowerDetailSunWe arrived at the base about an hour before opening. Fortified with some take-away coffee and pastries, we encountered a line of barely a couple dozen people ahead of us — though not long after we showed up, the line quadrupled in length. Chatting amiably with a couple from Connecticut (and their baby boy) who were on assignment in Brussels, we watched the Tower staff open the place up for the day. At 9:30, the gates opened up, and we were in the first-level elevator minutes afterward.

We transferred to the smaller elevator at the core of the structure and rose smoothly to the top through the steel latticework. The view was even clearer than last year, and Lola gasped in awe as we beheld the broad blanket of Parisian avenues and mansard roofs stretching to the horizon. As I’d found with so many hugely popular attractions the world over, this one – if you time it right and minimize your wait – makes your effort eminently worthwhile.

LolaEiffelTowerTopLast year the first level of the Tower was being remodeled, and this go-round we were able to savor the fruits of this initiative: glass walls and floors offer a view of the serpentine lines below; a small theatre shows film of the tower through history, including those amazing fireworks they shot off for the Year 2000 celebrations. Realizing that these took place three years before my travel companion’s birth made me feel decidedly, uhm, chronologically enhanced.

From old landmark to new: we hopped on the Metro westward, just out of the city to the close-in suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, to visit a stunning new modern art museum designed by star architect Frank Gehry: the Fondation Louis Vuitton.

LouisVuittonMuseumDetail3Predictably, the building was Gehry’s usual eye-popping mix of glass, steel, and wood in curvilinear shapes. Somewhat less predictably, for us at least, was that the rest of the city’s museum-hungry visitors seem to have had the same idea: a long line wended its way through the park into the museum, many with white parasols to guard against the bright sun.

“If you go into the park and pay the admission for it, there’s no waiting!” explained a guard to us in French. Right he was: for three Euros a pop, we gained access into the Jardin d’Acclimatation, the gardens next to the museum that date back to Napoleon III, and discovered a couple of automated ticket machines for the museum with only a few people in line.

LouisVuittonMuseumArt2As one of the world’s top tourist destinations, Paris and its better-known attractions are no strangers to crowd control. Well, the same couldn’t be said of this fetching new museum, whose staffers seemed overwhelmed by the throngs. First they allowed small napsacks into the place; then they did not; then they prohibited smaller items from their cloackroom as it had gotten overfilled with bigger items. Stern guards stood surly watch over some rather testy patrons. I can only hope that, as the years go by and this facility becomes more ingrained into the Paris scene, it learns how to handle the mobs as well as its counterparts across town.

Fortunately, the exhibits themselves were beguiling: though we didn’t make the Orsay on this go-round, the Fondation offered up respectable surrogates: some Picasso, some Léger, some Matisse, some Monet, a bit of Giacometti… even one of Edvard Munch’s The Scream… about which Lola remarked:

LolaArcDeTriompheTelescope“Did you see the version of this one where it’s Batman and Robin behind the screaming man, and there’s a Bat symbol in the sky?”

As a child of a post-modern, high-culture/low culture generation myself, I can appreciate.

A nice bite of lunch at a nearby café, then off for a different perspective on the city: alighting back at the Champs-Elysées, we did a bit more shopping then strode to the Étoile for a spiral-staircase romp up the Arc de Triomphe. Here again, glorious views – and though not quite as high as its towering cousin nearby, the Arc offers one advantage: you can see the Eiffel Tower from it.

LesDeuxMagotsViewFor our final dinner in the city, we took a recommendation from Lola’s Mom and headed over to nearby Saint-Germain-des-Prés to the Deux Magots. It was the nicest evening of the trip so far as we took in the vista of St-Germain Square, with its shops, galleries, and medieval abbey. We chatted about life and family and cities and such, as people often do during that contemplative final evening of a big trip. Afterward, we strolled past the boutiques of St-Germain back toward our accommodations. As we reached the park of the Champ de Mars, we beheld the lit-up Eiffel Tower just as its twinkling light show was starting. I’d never seen the sparkle-fest up-close before; it bewitched and beguiled us both as we strode slowly away, back to our hotel, on our final night in this wondrous, magical City of Light.

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A New Generation In London, Redux

April 10th, 2015 by David Jedeikin
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787WindowView1Following the success of my trip last spring with my nephew Jackson, I’d plotted a reprise for the next of the next generation: my niece Lola, oldest of another of my three sisters. A part of me, the ever-superstitious part, worried: would it work? Could I take two different children, offspring of different siblings, and expect similar results?

We arrived at Montreal’s airport on a surprisingly quiet Sunday night; though it was still Spring Break time it was also Easter Sunday. Having suffered through the misery of a sleepless airplane ride in a middle seat last go-round, this time I opted to pay a nominal fee for an upgrade to British Airways’ premium economy service, World Traveller Plus.

Well, that was worth it: Not only were seats more spacious in this cabin, but we were also flying on one of the airline’s brand-spanking new 787 aircraft that have become quite popular on “long thin” routes such as Montreal, Philadelphia, or Austin to the U.K. Big, widescreen in-seat TVs, an upgraded meal, and extra-tall windows added to the experience. We both managed a few hours of sleep on the flight over.

MadameTussaudsLolaUsainBoltOur hotel – same as the one last year, the Lancaster Gate – had a room ready for us on arrival, so we took a quick nap then headed out in the afternoon for a preliminary reconnoiter. A bit of a stroll down Oxford Street to indulge Lola some of her shopping passion, then a trip to one of London’s more kid-friendly touristy spots that I’d missed last year: the iconic Madame Tussauds.

Malign it though people sometimes do, the legendary wax museum holds a special place in my heart: it was the first stop on my first trip to London as a lad some (gasp!) thirty years ago. Well, the place has changed a lot, incorporating no shortage of Hollywood razzle-dazzle: a London history ride a la Disney; an Avengers 4-D CGI flick in the old planetarium, and (of course) a hefty dose of waxworks of the rich and famous. The place was packed, but, as with so many spots worldwide that see large crowds, it handled the throngs efficiently. A perfect place to take a young ‘un on that brain-fogged, jetlagged first day in this great city.

NatlHistLolaBellaDrawingsNext morning was sunny and glorious as we crossed Hyde Park into South Kensington. We enjoyed a splendid meal of crêpes (one of Lola’s and my favorite foods) before meeting two members of our family-friend Lightman clan, Joy and Bella. With Joy a few years older than me, and Bella a few younger than Lola, everyone had lots in common. Skipping the ever-present queues at the Natural History Museum, we flashed our timed ticket for a special coral reef exhibit. Bella and Lola, accomplished artists both, drew some remarkably proficient renditions of what we’d seen; after, we enjoyed the nice weather with a stroll through the museum’s butterfly exhibit and the wildlife garden just outside.

As I discovered in past travels, London’s culinary diversity has long banished tired clichés of flavorless British fare. However, even I find myself surprised by the city’s offerings. Like, who knew this city had a Chinatown? Well, Joy did, and took us to one of its old-school dim sum joints. Amid red-painted walls and paper chandeliers we feasted on a variety of bite-sized dishes. Food-adventurous Lola found everything to her liking, right down to the Chinese tea. Heck, she even outdid her klutzy uncle in her use of chopsticks.

LolaTowerBridgeNext morning was a struggle for us both getting out of bed – jetlag persisted, and Lola’s more a typical human than her cousin Jackson, who seemed to thrive on something like five hours of sleep a night. We hauled ourselves by Tube across the city to the Tower of London, reprising the Beefeater tour I’d done last year. Only difference? It felt like half of Europe (and North America) has descended on the city and its eponymous Tower. Our tour group filled the place up, and the line for the Crown Jewels seemed to stretch halfway across the Thames. So we did what flexible world travelers do and gave it a miss, instead checking out the suits of armor in the iconic White Tower and browsing in the gift shop for charm bracelets and other goodies.

Passing the Monument to the city’s Great Fire, we hopped back on the Tube and headed north, to Golders Green, for yet a bit of personal family London history: a visit to the elder Lightmans, who are looking well and proceeded to ply us with goodies and old family photos from get-togethers of years past.

MeLolaLightmans2A quick bit of shopping on chock-ablock Oxford Street, then a quick-change act at the hotel for our evening activity: a bit of West End theatre.

First things first, though: a bite of pre-show dinner. Given that our musical was playing right around Covent Garden, I figured there’d be oodles of spots for dinner nearby. Oh, there were, but seemed the rest of the city had the same idea: place after place sported long lines, and we were barely an hour from showtime. Ugh. I was having visions of us sitting through a 2 1/2-hour spectacle with rumbling stomachs. Happily, a nearby “Italian-style tapas” place, all done up with arty lighting and walls made of wine corks, had availability, great food, and speedy service to boot. Heck, we even had time to squeeze in a pre-show gelato (chocolate, of course).

LolaTheatre2Cacoa was the theme of the evening, in fact, as the musical in question was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This rendition’s been put together by Hollywood heavyweights, director Sam Mendes and composer Marc Shaiman. Lighter in tone than the book or the more recent movie, it proved a perfect fit for Lola and me (chocaholics both, natch).

Our final day in the city was a predictably full one: we headed across the park once more to the museums to meet a second set of our family-friend clan – this time, the museum was the Victoria & Albert.

Lola and Susan (older sister of Joy, whom we’d hung out with two days before) got on famously, as the two inspected the sizable collection of historic jewels, fashions and glassworks in the museum’s massive collection. We were there for a couple of hours and I think barely scratched the surface of the place. One highlight, a motif in so many of my travels across the globe: the museum rotunda’s entry chandelier by renowned Seattle artist Dale Chihuly.

LolaCatCafe5After that, a Tube ride across town to Bethnal Green for what for me has become the highlight of these travels: a rendezvous with feline-kind at London’s first (and, so far, only) cat café.

The two-story establishment in a storefront on Bethnal Green Road more closely resembles its cousin across the Channel in Paris that I’d visited last spring: a sit-down eatery where cats and humans commingle in a shared space. In North America regulations mandate separation between food and animals… but are also more permissive on the cat-rescue front, allowing cafés to double as adoption centers. Best part: hot chocolate with cocoa cat faces sprinkled on top. Second-best part: a cat treadmill used extensively by one of the felines to get some afternoon cardio. Hey, girl’s gotta stay in shape.

Heading south again, we arrived at the Thames to catch one of the numerous river buses that ply the waterway, serving as both commuter transit and tourist attraction. We alighted just south of Westminster for our afternoon activity and (we hoped) perfect finale for our time in this city: the London Eye.

We’d already snagged tickets to this event the other day, and were hoping to breeze past the queues and get right on. We were even more hopeful when the lady at the counter said the magic words:

“You’ve gotten the last two tickets for the four-thirty entry.”

A glance at Lola’s watch revealed that was just fifteen minutes away. Perfect, I thought… until I glanced at the ticket and saw that the time was in fact… five thirty. A halfhearted apology from the counter clerk and a mammoth queue for the attraction left us both feeling rather disheartened. Now what?

LondonAquariumTurtleWhile both blue about it all, Lola, fast acquiring the improvisational skills so vital in world travel, pointed to a nearby spot attraction and said, “how about we go there?”

The London Sea Life Aquarium didn’t seem like much on first glance: clustered amid a row of other tourist traps, I had visions of some dumpy little spot that, like so many zoological establishments, cared less about its creatures than about its hefty entry fees. Well, never say never: the place was one of the better aquariums I’d seen, featuring huge, elaborate tanks with truly impressive specimens. Best part: oodles of information about conservation of endangered species, including the Aquarium’s own efforts at rescue and rehabilitation. To commemorate the spontaneous visit, Lola got herself a glitter tattoo (temporary, of course) of her favorite sea creature, the seahorse.

LolaLondonEye2The line had subsided some as we returned to the Eye, and we boarded rather speedily as the sun sank lower on the horizon. The orange, late-afternoon light gorgeously lit up the cityscape as our Eye capsule rose slowly over the river and the Houses of Parliament. As with so many popular tourist spots worldwide, this place remains massively popular for good reason. Lola professed a fright that was shortly eclipsed by wonderment as the view transfixed us all.

The day ended with a final, lovely surprise: my old pal Michelangelo, a.k.a. “Renaissance Man,” who proved so instrumental in my big world trip, was in town and met us for a tasty Middle Eastern meal on London’s center for such spots, Edgware Road. We caught up on our travels and relocations of the past years (which for him included a stint in India); Lola even managed to give him a life coaching lesson or two.

MeMichelangeloIt all made for a fitting end to a return to one of my favorite cities: new spots, old favorites, reunions with old friends… and, of course, the reason for it all: another of the next generation of world travelers.

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Europe’s Bad Boy

March 24th, 2015 by David Jedeikin
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AcropolisWideLike Istanbul, Rome and Jerusalem, the word “Athens” brings up a host of legendary associations: ruins of ancient civilizations; Mediterranean weather; and dirty, modern-day hustle and bustle. Having hit the previous three cities in previous and current travels, I wanted to see how things compared in the ancient and modern capital of Greece.

I was equally curious given recent events: while the global economic crisis had its Ground Zero in America, its shock waves took a while to ripple across the globe. They hadn’t yet quite reached Europe’s shores on my big 2008-2009 trip, but now, almost seven years on, they’ve been the focus of a fight between Europe’s big-dog nation, Germany, and its hapless debt-plagued counterpart, Greece. I’m not enough of an economics expert to know just what is going on, exactly, but the narrative is that years of Greek profligacy have led to the nation’s near insolvency – threatening their exit from the Eurozone and a crisis in the EU overall.

So on top of all that culture and archeology, I was curious to check out what times were like in the capital city of Europe’s economic bad boy.

BlueStarFerrySideAlthough I wasn’t able to take a ferry from Turkey to Santorini, taking one back to Athens proved eminently doable. Ferries in the Med have gotten a bad rap lately, what with the Norman Atlantic last year and the Costa Concordia in 2012 (though the latter was a cruise ship, not a ferry). So I did my homework: the ship that now plies the route between Santorini and Pireaus (the port of Athens) happens to be a recently launched, Korean-built vessel that had gotten stellar reviews.

I arrived at the ferry port in Santorini to find a much busier place than the off-season island would suggest. As the Blue Star Delos piloted itself into port, I waited with gaggles of foreign tourists and Greek locals before clambering aboard. As with the mammoth ships in Ireland and New Zealand that I’d taken in my past travels, this one had multiple garage decks for cars and trucks as well as space for passengers.

BlueStarFerryCabin2As I rode the escalators to the main deck, any worries about this being a sketchy conveyance evaporated: the ship was at least as nicely fitted out as the cruise ship I’d been on last spring. I even spluged an extra €50 for a private cabin – not strictly necessary as this wasn’t an overnight journey, but for an eight-hour sunset trip it made for a stellar sanctuary.

As the ship approached Piraeus, we were ushered into the cavernous garage decks to disembark; as we began to dock, ramps descended in a blaze of warning sirens like something like an invasion force or a sci-fi craft on an alien planet.

I had one final work day left in this trip, but beforehand again managed to engage in a morning recon of the city. Unlike sprawling Rome or Istanbul, Athens’ modern center is compactly organized around the hills of the Acropolis. I strode through Plaka, the tourist district nearest the historical monuments, and found a charming collection of narrow neoclassical streetscapes; the place looks recently fixed up, with the odd splash of quite creative graffiti here and there. Spotless, new trams rolled down larger thoroughfares.

PlakaStreet2As I headed northwest, toward Syntagma Square and the shopping district of Omonia, I saw a bit more grit – and the odd cluster of protestors. But it definitely felt safe, energetic, decidedly southern European in all the best ways. For a place in the grip of a massive economic depression, things seemed shockingly, refreshingly mundane.

Next morning at breakfast, my goal for the day presented itself from the top-floor terrace of my hotel: the city’s star attraction, the Acropolis.

AcropolisSelfieAnother similarity with Rome, Istanbul, and Jerusalem (and my current hometown, San Francisco): Athens is ringed by mountains. The Acropolis’s 500-foot outcrop has been a citadel for millenia, though it only took its current form in the Classical Greek era. As with many ancient monuments, it’s seen its share of damage and looting through the ages – from a gunpowder explosion in 1687 from when the Ottoman Turks used the place as a weapons depot, to British Lord Elgin making off with its frieze in 1811 – to this day the “Elgin Marbles” still reside in the British Museum in London.

AcropolisOdeon3I’ve mentioned before how ruins often leave me uninspired: a pile of rubble seems like so sorry a way to commemorate the architectural and engineering achievements of past civilizations. Likewise, the Acropolis is notorious for its huge crowds; at times I’m actually okay with that – as I wrote when I visited the Colosseum in Rome, places that were designed as gathering spots feel right with even today with large herds of visitors.

AcropolisParthenon2Well, I’d say the effect here was about halfway between the Colosseum and the Sistine Chapel – where, when I visited, loud packs of tourists had to be repeatedly shushed by guards; the temples of the Acropolis were places of religious activity, and while I’m no big practitioner of such, I can appreciate the aura of serenity and contemplation they offer. Plus, for me, Greek deities have a double significance: I totally dug Greek mythology in my youth; also, for sci-fi nuts, their appropriation in the Battlestar Galactica franchise left me wondering if the Cylons were going to show up during my visit (thankfully, no).

AcropolisViewSeaClimbing the hill, past the Theatre of Dionysus and the Odeon of Herodes, I followed the crowds into the grand hilltop entrance – and beheld it in its partly ruined glory: the Parthenon.

Maybe it’s just fame and aura talking, but the place blew me away. The chattering tourists faded and I was able to focus on the grandeur of the temple. I was heartened to see that it and surrounding structures are the subject of significant restoration works; heck, if it was up to me I’d build the place back to the way it was in the time of Pericles, statue of Athena and all.

Afterward I strode down the opposite side, toward the neighborhood of Monastiraki: more fetching 19th Century narrow streets lined with eateries and souvenir shops offering some rather creative T-shirts for sale.

MonastirakiGreekCrisisShirtAlthough older than Tel Aviv, Athens bears some similarity to its Israeli neighbor across the Med: it too is a revived city of relatively recent lineage. The place was under the thumb of the Ottomans for centuries, and relations with Turkey, though improving, remain prickly (item of note: there are no mosques to be seen anywhere in the surrounding cityscape). Only in the last couple of centuries has Athens regained some of its ancient-era stature, though even today it’s a significantly smaller place than Paris, London, or post-Ottoman Istanbul.

MonastirakiFleaMarket2Still, it offers its own charms: the flea market, where I strolled before having lunch at a rather good café near the Temple of Hephaestus (how many eateries can make that boast?) echoed the back streets of Kadıköy in Istanbul; the graffiti here is at least as creative… even finding its way to the odd railcar on the city’s tidy Metro system. It too is a relatively new expansion of an old rail line from Piraeus, and is now roughly equivalent in size and ridership to the system in my native hometown, Montreal.

AthensMetroGraffitiAfter dark, I opted to head off the tourist path a bit and walk around Makrigianni, the residential neighborhood southeast of the Acropolis. Here the Tel Aviv analogy was especially apt, with mid-rise apartment blocks fronting narrow streets… again presided over by the occasional cat. Plus, for €5 I managed to snag a tasty take-away meal that would have been triple the price in neighboring Plaka.

Having seen the city’s marquee attraction, I figured I should learn more about it: next morning I headed over to the new Acropolis Museum, a modern, somewhat severe-looking edifice lying just yards away from the base of the great outcropping. Underneath its glass and steel walls lie ruins of ancient Athens; in this regard, this city differs slightly from Jerusalem, Rome, or Delhi, all of which had been repeatedly sacked and rebuilt throughout history, always in a slightly different spot. Ancient Athens was always right here – surrounding the Acropolis itself.

AcropolisMuseumInt1But why? I wondered. Well, the answer lies with water: as with ancient settlements throughout the Mediterranean basin, Athens began in a secure spot with access to fresh water – which just so happens to be the Acropolis itself. Only later did the hilltop become a place of worship and communion with the Greek deities – and stayed that way right through the Roman period; unlike so many places of conquest and destruction, the later empire across the Aegean doggedly retained, and even enhanced, the Greek capital as a center of learning and culture. I guess that’s why they call it “Greco/Roman.”

I’ve never been one to spend days upon days in art and antiquities museums inspecting every detail of this or that artwork or artifact. So, evading the legions of bored schoolchildren being lectured by myriad docents, I sleuthed out one modestly-marked attraction on the map: the virtual reality theaterCool. I was having visions of 3-D movie re-enactments of temples in ancient days. I strode across the building, past what looked like some kids’ play area, into the theatre, where a show was already in progress. No prob, I figured; I’d just wait for the next showing.

AcropolisMuseumFace“What do you want!?” snarled a young, scruffy museum official who’d followed me out of the theatre. Whoa, dude. I asked him when the next show was taking place.

“There are no more showings today! Only at 11 and 12!” he barked. Glancing at the crowd, I noticed more schoolchildren – looks like this was designed as a kiddie attraction, probably to retain the attention of those inattentive youths I’d seen upstairs.

It was a minor incident at best, but something about it rattled me. The hostility, the rudeness… I can appreciate and accept that not all cultures interact identically; that Yankee-style friendliness isn’t the norm in other places; and that likewise, English is not the mother tongue in these parts. But still, I can’t help but wonder if this museum’s ambassadors to the world couldn’t have gotten at least a little briefing on globally-accepted manners.

I continued my wander of the city back past the Greek Parliament – and here, too, it was all business: a marching-band military processional of some kind. On side streets, I spotted the odd police paddy wagon and rifle-toting officers; didn’t seem like any protests were happening but looks like they weren’t taking any chances.

KolonakiGermanPosterA stroll through the leafy National Gardens and up the hilly streets of the upscale Kolonaki neighborhood proved something of a tonic… until I came upon it: a poster on an apartment building across from the German Embassy. On it, a Swastika and a picture of German Chancellor Angela Merkel dolled up in military garb.

Yikes.

Obviously, it’s ludicrious to make a connection between one random rude museum docent and the political ramifications of what I was seeing… but then I thought back to Israel and its oft-surly customer-service scenarios, and wondered if I’d been sensing the tip of a rather turbulent socio-political iceberg. This place looks and feels like a dynamic, lively southern European capital, to be sure… but there’s something unhappy lurking beneath the charming narrow streets and historic relics.

I continued my meander uphill, reaching the underground funicular that climbs the slope of Mount Lycabettus. A mixed crowd of locals and some visitors made it clear that this spot is on the radar, to be sure, but not to the degree as other attractions a short distance away.

MtLycabettusViewCactiStepping out of the funicular clinched it: the hordes don’t know what they’re missing. The Acropolis gets the glory for its historic and archeological past… but Lycabettus, the highest point in the city, is a wonder, unfurling a glorious, mystical panorama of the city like nowhere else. Like Mount Carmel in Haifa, Victoria Peak in Hong Kong, or Twin Peaks back home in San Francisco (which is almost exactly the same height), this spot floats above the masses of the city’s apartment blocks. In the hazy distance I saw the sea and ships of Pireaus, where I’d made landfall just a few days ago.

MtLycabettusSelfieThis urban Mount Olympus is crowned by a small quintessentially Greek Orthodox chapel, and a modern-day amphitheatre to do its ancient counterparts on the Acropolis proud; the place has hosted numerous latter-day pop performances. An ethereal blend of succulents and flowering plants cover the slopes. I wandered down the meandering path back to Kolonaki, played the Imagine Dragons song “On Top of the World” on repeat, and felt the jarring scenes from earlier in the day simply melt away in my brain.

LastDinnerLimoncelloAfter dark I wandered the streets of Plaka one last time. The Acropolis was lit up, jewel-like, on the hilltop above. Although I often obey the “five block rule” about restaurants near tourist spots, I broke it this time… and was richly rewarded. I had a fabulous final meal in Athens, accompanied by warm, receptive service and a complimentary Limoncello as a digestif. And all within view of the Acropolis Museum where I’d encountered that surly docent… proving again that, in travel, as in life, there really are no absolutes.

MtLycabettusCats2My morning departure from Athens held one final treat: having ridden the speedy, reliable Metro in from the city, I stood in line at security behind a young Russian fellow traveling with his family – and their cat. He hauled kitty out of her crate and walked her through the X-ray – just as I’d done a number of times with my Khaleesi (though, alas, not this time).

Seems the cats of southern Europe and the Middle East, who’d been ever-present throughout this trip, were gently guiding me back home.

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The Winds of Atlantis

March 19th, 2015 by David Jedeikin
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SantoriniChurchBellSantorini is one of those ludicrously photogenic places featured in innumerable travel magazines, feature films, and (I’m told) Greek fashion shoots and music videos. I therefore have been determined to include it on a jaunt around the Med, and this trip proved the opportune time.

I’d hoped to hop a ferry to get there, either from Istanbul itself (nope, too far – would have required a cruise) or from one of Turkey’s southern cities. Alas, a scour of travel websites yielded practically nothing until later in the season. So a plane ride it was, with a change in Athens, just as I’d done to get to Ko Phangan in Thailand from Cambodia back on my world trip.

 

ATHAegeanAirBoardComparison with the Thai islands is apt: both they and the scatter-pattern of craggy dots in the Aegean Sea are big destinations for sun-seeking Brits and northern Europeans. Indeed, the brief flight to the island was packed… though the crowd onboard featured a surprising number of Americans as well as tourists from outside Europe. Interesting, I mused, though I didn’t think much of it at the time.

I arrived at my accommodations, one of those gorgeous cliffside cavelike structures hugging the top of the mountainside in Fira, Santorini’s main town. It was a cool, quiet evening, with shuttered shops lining back alleyways; in the distance, lights of other islands towns twinkled in the distance. As the sun rose the next morning, I saw it from my windows: a small peak jutting out of the Aegean waters, surrounded by the semicircular island. Santorini is in fact the caldera of a collapsed volcano that erupted some 3,500 years ago; it apparently led to the downfall of the Minoan civilization – and some say it’s the legend that inspired tales of the lost city of Atlantis.

SantoriniFiraStreetRocksWell, on a windy, cool March morning, Atlantis remained as quiet as the night before: most shops remained shut during the day, and only small scatterings of visitors were to be seen. Most of the folks out and about were locals – laborers busily repainting and remodeling in preparation for the summer season.

Then it hit me: Santorini’s off-season is really an off-season – more like, say, the Hamptons near New York than the beaches near San Diego. Points to consider: Europe’s freakishly high latitude, made possible by the warming effects of the Gulf Stream, means its climate is milder than it would otherwise be (to wit: Montreal and Marseille are almost at the same latitude). This at times misleads me to think of the Continent – at least its Mediterranean bits – as mirroring California’s coast. However… not all Mediterranean climes are created equal: whereas, say, Santa Monica can count on daytime highs between 65°F and 75°F practically year-round, that’s not as true of locales in the actual Med, a much smaller body of water than the mammoth Pacific. Here, seasonal swings are greater, even right by the sea.

So that explained the missing Brits, and general emptiness of the place overall. Santorini in mid-March is chilly. Its famed winds made it feel even colder than Istanbul. I’m told the converse is true here in summer, where it can reach 40 °C (over 100 °F) – almost unheard of along the American West Coast but no doubt a godsend to sun-starved north Europeans.

SantoriniScooterNonetheless, I opted to brave the elements, renting a motor scooter to do some exploring. Riding south, I took curving mountain roads down to the island’s ferry port. Aside from a small freight vessel, the place was likewise deserted… and that’s when my scooter chose to die.

Crap, I thought. Fumbling around in my pockets, I located the receipt from the rental place and gave them a ring; a few tries with the manual kickstarter thankfully did the trick, and I was on my way. Another reminder this was the off-season: the thing looked like they’d just hauled it out of storage (though it behaved quite nicely the rest of the day, thank heavens).

SantoriniOiaWideBraving blasts of wind that would do Chicago proud, I headed north to the island’s tip. While the inner rim of the island hugging the caldera is mountainous, the outer parts are verdant plains: I looked over beautifully terraced farms leading out to blue seas. In the distance, some of the other islands of the Cyclades chain were visible; it was easy to see how humans of early history settled these islands one by one, forming one of humankind’s first civilizations.

SantoriniOia9Meanwhile, my destination lay perched in the distance: the town of Oia (pronounced “EE-ya”), another clifftop settlement, this one blanketing the island’s northwesternmost point. Fira is pretty, to be sure, but Oia is the place dreams are made of: a dense thicket of whitewashed buildings tumbling down the cliffs toward the azure sea. Here and there, blue-domed churches added vivid splashes of color. Here the peace and quiet of the off-season was a blessing: the town was magical, bewitching, everything those travel brochures advertised and then some. Like a number of other spots on this journey, Oia has catapulted to what is now an increasingly crowded roster of my Most Beautiful Spots On Earth.

SantoriniSunset2But surely, I wondered, a place like this didn’t just spring, fully-formed, as a photogenic tourist destination. Actually, its history has a thing or two in common with Valparaíso, Chile, a city I’d visited almost exactly six years ago which also sports a Mediterranean climate and structures climbing steep hillsides. Both were good-sized 19th century port towns – in Oia’s case, as a stopover point on the trade route between Russia and Egypt. Most of the fine structures – now repurposed as hotels, shops, and restaurants – were once the homes of mariners. Alas, as with Valparaíso and the opening of the Panama Canal, the arrival of steam and the growth of Athens’ port of Pireaus hastened Oia’s decline; it was only in the last few decades that the place rebirthed itself as a holiday destination.

SantoriniMulesCUOver the next couple of days, I joined my local counterparts, and rolled up my sleeves to do more remote work; ironically, being in a vacation spot during a quieter time made for a perfect productivity enhancer – to say nothing of having a killer view of the blue Aegean. The weather improved some on my last day on the island, so I opted to hit a couple more spots before I was set to head off.

Although the new ferry port is some ways away from Fira town, the old port, where some boats still alight for caldera tours, lay just down the hill from where I was staying. I walked down the winding paths, dodging the odd pile of manure and paying my greetings to the beasts responsible for them. Yes, mules, donkeys, and horses are still used on the island to haul sacks of goods up from the old harbor. Meanwhile, anchored in the harbor, a filmic reminder: one boat named “Melina,” same as the Bond girl in the set-partly-in-Greece film For Your Eyes Only.

SantoriniCableCar3Reaching the bottom, I opted for a higher-tech conveyance to climb back up: the Santorini Cable Car – really more a chain of ski-lift-type gondolas – was said to run only a few times a day in the off-season… but luckily one of those times was mere minutes from when I stopped in. The elderly lift operator ushered me and a family from Vancouver into a cabin, and up we went for the brief journey up the mountain.

From there I hoofed it over to the town’s Prehistory Museum. Well, sort-of prehistory, as it mostly featured artifacts from the island’s Minoan-era past… but the effect was nonetheless spectacular: astonishingly vivid, beautiful ceramics and frescoes from Akrotiri, the island’s onetime center circa, oh, four thousand years ago. Archeological work here in past decades has corroborated that the island’s volcanic eruption was indeed what toppled the Minoan civilization… though no confirmation on whether this was in fact Atlantis. A part of me chooses to believe it was: a place this stunning would have made a perfect spot for a lost civilization to set up shop… only to ultimately, mysteriously disappear beneath the waves and winds.

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